The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And that you cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept.

Speculative fiction, set in platter of medieval Baghdad, blend in theology and philosophy, pepper with mythology, add a dollop of time-travel and voila! What we have here is another wonderful short story by Ted Chiang from the anthology “Stories of Your Life and Others”. It leaves one charmed by the mystical, bewildered by a bygone era, and captivated by sheer simplicity.

Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is a story narrated by the protagonist Fuwaad ibn Abbass, a fabric merchant, in presence of the Caliph of Baghdad. His tale is of wonderment as he recalls a chance encounter with the owner of one of the most ingenious shops in the city. Fuwaad is enthralled by Bashaarat’s contraptions and douses him with heartfelt praises. The latter invites our protagonist to further explore his inventions and shows him a hoop-like apparatus which functions more or less like a wormhole. From here on, we traverse the future as well as the past through a myriad of characters, all interlinked one way or another.

The right side of the hoop precedes the left by several seconds. To pass through the hoop is to cross that duration instantly

Again, an arm reached out from the left side. Wishing to discover the mechanism of the trick, I rushed over to grab it by the hand. It was not a false hand, but one fully warm and alive as mine. I pulled on it, and it pulled back. Then, as deft as a pickpocket, the hand slipped the ring from my finger and the arm withdrew into the hoop, vanishing completely.

What happened on the right side of the hoop was complemented, a few seconds later, by an event on the left side

The story of Hassan

Bashaarat first recounts the tale of Hassan who travelled through the Gate of Years to visit his older, more successful self. The elder Hassan instructs his former self of ways to avoid trouble in his past life so that he may live on and become successful in his career. From walking on one side of the path to not get trampled by a horse, to not buying rotten eggs, the younger Hassan is forewarned, time and time again. When an event occurs for which his elder self had not counselled him, Hassan realises the importance of having to experience trials and tribulations for himself despite the knowledge that he will ultimately live on.

Instead, he asked young Hassan to remind him of the pranks he had played as a child, and he laughed to hear stories that had faded from his own memory

As to how we came to know its location, I have no explanation except that it was the will of Allah, and what other explanation is there for anything?

In this way Hassan lived the happiest of lives until he was overtaken by death, breaker of ties and destroyer of delights.

The story of Ajib

Driven by the curiosity that impels men to look at the heads of the executed, Ajib went to the door of his house

Bashaarat then tells Fuwaad of Ajib who sought his older self through the Gate of Years in hopes of discovering how he becomes wealthy. Much to his dismay, Ajib finds his older self living in destitution. He enters his own residence of the future and steals a treasure chest from his elder self. Coming back to the present time, he sells off the riches found in the chest and marries his beloved Taahira. Twist of fate occurs when Taahira is kidnapped and the robbers ask for hefty ransom. The younger Ajib is quick to give away all his wealth only to get his wife back. He is then hit with realisation of the crime he committed with his future self and vows to return every penny he stole from his older self. The couple begin to live in perpetual poverty which is what Ajib first witnesses.

The story of Hassan’s Wife

Raniya, Hassan’s wife in the future, witnesses her husband (the elder Hassan) dining with his former, younger self. His youthful features and sprightly demeanour entice her greatly as she seeks to pursue the younger Hassan in order to bed him. She goes back into the past through the Gate and comes across a jeweller to whom the younger Hassan is seen selling a necklace which Raniya possessed. She concocts a plan to save Hassan from a mob and later has intercourse with him. Having saved her future husband’s life she returns to Cairo of her day.

Fuwaad’s story

Even though the past is unchangeable, one may encounter the unexpected when visiting it.

Now our protagonist wishes to traverse into the past to see what became of his long lost wife, who he knows had died yet there is a smidgen of hope that she might have lived. Following a spat, he abruptly left his beloved wife Najya years ago. During his absence she was wounded by a wall which fell on her. Eventually she succumbed to her injuries.

Can the torments of Hell be worse than what I endured in the days that followed? It seemed likely that I would find out, so near to death did my anguish take me

Like infernal fire, grief burns but does not consume; instead, it makes the heart vulnerable to further suffering.

Since then he had lived in perpetual guilt of having abandoned her. Fuwaad undertakes an arduous journey to Cairo to travel back twenty years, only to find out that his wife did indeed die in the accident. But his older self meets a woman who nursed Najya’s wounds and confides in him Najya’s dying thoughts about her husband and how she professed her unchanging love for him. This revelation placates his guilt.

My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise

Predestination and choice

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully

This story once again deals with the objectivity of fate and free-will without discounting either. Fuwaad, on his own accord, decides to visit his younger self despite being fully aware of the tragedy that befell his wife. This is the choice he makes, but this choice does not alter what had already happened. Similarly, Ajib’s act of stealing from his own-self in the future perpetuates the misery he spends the rest of his life in.

It is said, Your Majesty, that Fate laughs at men’s schemes

The Arrow of Time

Men of experience say, “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity,” and I understood the truth of those words better than most

Time only moves in one direction: forward, and so do all the events that take place. This story posits that even if one is able to move through time and revisit their past, what has to happen will happen and the entire universe conforms to this objective principle laid down by our Creator. It is only in the knowledge of the past that men may find knowledge of lessons learned.

Narrative style

I could feel its warm breeze at my back, coming through the Gate like a sigh

a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other.

Ted Chiang’s writings not only blend hard sci-fi with magic and surrealism but also stimulate the senses through vivid imagery and simplistic writing style. The allure of his stories has me riveting. His epigrams such as “Grief owes no debt” are as bewitching as statements which conjure theology and philosophy together.

If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

To conclude, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” has a fervent moral for those who place fate and free-will on the same pedestal since both balance out the ultimate universal equation. The story is instructive but not didactic in nature. The narrative style, replete with ancient mysticism, tantalise the senses.

 Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough

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